Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Humanae Vitae (Of
Human Life), the encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI reiterating the Roman Catholic Church's ban on artificial means of birth control. There won't be many sermons commemorating the occasion, and even an ardent admirer of the document notes that in 25 years she has never heard the words "Humanae Vitae" uttered from a pulpit in a Catholic church.
Not unlike Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that was supposed to end the abortion controversy in the United States, Humanae Vitae fell far short of providing the last word for Catholics on the subject of birth control. Instead, the document has come to symbolize for many people the irrelevance of religious teachings in some areas of modern life.
That's a sad result, because the encyclical offers insights about human love and sexuality that could enrich the lives of many families, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But the fuller message of the document was buried under the weight of one of its 31 sections, the one upholding the church's position that any artificial form of birth control is sinful.
In 1968, the church was still sorting out the results of the invigorating ferment stirred by the Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965. The council itself had agreed not to take up the matter of birth control. Rather, the Vatican commissioned studies to determine whether the church's teachings on contraception could be modified. Those commissions, which included Baltimore's Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, had concluded that such a change could be incorporated into the continuity of Catholic teaching.
The effect of the papal decision to reject that advice and uphold the ban has had profound effects. Within the church, the issue touches not just on the morality or immorality of contraception. It also raises basic questions about the nature of authority and how the church should fulfill its role as the guardian and teacher of Catholic doctrine.
For some, the dissent it provoked among theologians, priests and bishops represented a welcome maturing of the church, in which healthy disagreement could enrich faith.
For others -- especially for Pope Paul VI and later for Pope John Paul II -- the widespread rejection of the encyclical's message represented a threat to papal authority. They have made it an informal test of Catholic orthodoxy -- exactly what some observers warned against.
Support for the document has become a litmus test for advancing within the hierarchy, signaling that debate and disagreement are not welcome -- and, of course, spurring more discussion about the nature and proper use of authority. As one Catholic moral theologian, Richard A. McCormick, noted in a recent discussion of Humanae Vitae: "The best way and only way to enhance authority in the modern world is to share it."
While the church itself continues to struggle with questions of authority, the world copes with the effects of a teaching based on assumptions about the process of reproduction that date to ancient times -- assumptions that critics say are simply insupportable in light of what we now know about human biology.
Although individual Catholics may disregard the teaching, the church retains its influence in institutional settings, and its teachings on birth control have discouraged many governments around the world from undertaking strong family planning programs. Meanwhile, world population has mushroomed in the world's poorest countries. Ironically, this summer's anniversary of Humanae Vitae coincides with reports that, for the first time, population growth is beginning to outstrip the world's capacity to produce food.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, world grain production has fallen 8 percent over the past eight years. Even more worrisome, there are no new technological advances on the horizon like those that sparked impressive growth in annual harvests between 1950 and 1984.
The church has long argued that population growth is a blessing, not a threat. But with 91 million more people inhabiting the planet each year -- almost all of them in countries too poor to support the people they already have -- it is increasingly difficult to sustain that view.
Meanwhile, in this country, as in other affluent nations, millions of people face vexing questions about love, life and sexuality as well as about the wise use of the Earth's resources. Religion has much to teach the world about all these issues. Sadly, with its continuing refusal to open itself to healthy and honest dialogue on sexuality, the Catholic Church undercuts its ability to give the world a moral voice it desperately needs.
Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.